Aspects of Norfolk During WW2.

In November 2018 Norfolk writer, Stephen Browning published, via Pen and Sword, his book ‘Norfolk at War 1939-45’ which contains 336 pages of text and over 300 illustrations. The book traced the war, year on year, from the perspective of the people of Norfolk. This blog takes a few snippets from Stephen’s book, highlighting 20 facts that some readers may not know and supplementing the text with additional material and photographs. Read on!

1. The Price of a house in 1939:
In 1939, if you were in a position to buy your house, exactly as today the cost varied according to where you decided to live. To give some idea of the market, a detached four-bedroomed bungalow or house in the country or small town would cost perhaps about £500. If you wanted to live in a better part of Norwich, the local press of 1939 shows that this amount would buy you possibly a good three-bedroomed terrace property with garden or a two/three bedroomed semi-detached house with garden.

nORFOLK AT wAR (1930s-suburban-houses)
Typical 1930’s styled houses.

2. The First Evacuees:
Evacuation began on Friday 1st September when the first of 20,000 children arrived over four days at Thorpe Station in Norwich. Scouts and Guides helped put them all in buses that took them to dispersal centres in nearby schools. There they were given a quick inspection for lice and colds and each given a bag of rations containing one can of beef, a container of milk, two small blocks of chocolate and a pound of biscuits. Other children arrived on steamers which brought them from the Thames in London to Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth or Felixstowe.

Norfolk at War (Evacuees)
World War 2 Evacuees. Photo: IWM

3. Entertainments On Offer:
In Norfolk as a whole, citizens tried to retain elements of their everyday and normal life – as if a war was not happening. Cinemas and theatres continued to do good business and dance halls came into a life of their own. As the war progressed, the standard of film went down. There was often a feature plus a government piece such as ‘Fuel Flashes’, ‘The Kitchen Front’ or ‘Battle Orders’. The few big production films were wildly popular, feeding a need for escapism and laughter. These included some still famous today: ‘Come on George’ with George Formby, ‘The Murder in Thornton Square’ with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, ‘Bulldog Drummond Strikes Again’ with Ronald Colman and Loretta Young and ‘Goodbye, Mr Chips’ with Robert Donat.

Norfolk at War (Goodbye Mrs Chips)
Robert Donat (Mr. Chips) and Greer Garson (Katherine) in the 1939 film version of James Hilton’s Good-bye, Mr. Chips. Photo: © 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.

On the radio, some famous programmes were ‘Can You Hear Me, Mother?’ with Sandy Powell, and Sandy’s Half-Hour with Sandy Macpherson which, at its peek, received 5,000 requests a week for music requests from servicemen. The most famous, however, was ‘ITMA’ (It’s That Man Again) with Tommy Handley which, on Thursday evenings at 8.30 pm brought to listeners  the ‘Minister of Aggravation and Mysteries’ which existed in the ‘Office of Twerps’. He invented characters such as ‘Funf’, the German spy, and ‘Mrs Mopp’ a charwoman who always entered with the ribald ‘Can I do you now, Sir?’ The two most famous songs of the war were probably ‘Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line’ which sold over 200,000 copies in the first week of publication and Flannagan and Allan’s ‘Run Rabbit Run’.

Norfolk at War (Run Rabbit)
Flannagan & Allen.

4. The Battle of Britain started over Norwich:
The first event of the Battle of Britain began at 4.40 in the morning of 10 July when three Spitfires from No 66 Squadron took to the air from RAF Coltishall, eight miles north of Norwich city. They found a single German Dornier bomber which raked one of the Spitfires with bullets, forcing it back to base. The other two pursued the bomber and shot it down over the sea; three of the crew were seen adrift in the water. Soon afterwards RAF Martlesham near Ipswich was attacked by several planes and eighteen bombs dropped – fortunately any damage was limited to the edge of the airfield and there were no casualties.

Norfolk at War1
A spitfire Squadron. Photo: Courtesy of Stephen Browning.

5. Great Yarmouth was a prime tarket:
On the Norfolk coast, Great Yarmouth along with its southern neighbour, Lowestoft, suffered almost continuous harassment. Over half the population of this coastal belt had been evacuated and this saved countless lives. The raid on Yarmouth and nearby Gorleston on 7-8 April 1941 destroyed more property than any other in the war over the whole of East Anglia.

Norfolk at War (Yarmouth)
Great Yarmouth’s WW2 Bomb Damage. 

6. Henry Blogg of Cromer carried on his heroic work:
Henry Blogg, a hero of the Great War, continued his exploits in the second. He was now sixty five years of age. He was three times awarded the Gold Medal of the RNLI.

Norfolk at War (Blogg)
Henry Blogg.

7. Churchill sets up ‘British Restaurants’:
Winston Churchill championed the setting up of ‘communal feeding centres’ although he hated that term as it reminded him of communism and the workhouse. Thus, they became ‘British Restaurants’ and fantastically popular they were, too. For, say, lunch you bought a token, from 1 penny to 6: 1d (old term for a penny) would buy a bowl of soup and a piece of bread while 6d bought a substantial three course meal.

Norfolk at War2
Churchill. Photo: Courtesy of Stephen Browning

8. The War inspired some famous poems – including this one:

High Flight
by
John Gillespie Magee, Jr

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air . . .

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Norfolk at War (John_Gillespie_Magee,_Jr)

John Gillespie Magee, Jr. (9 June 1922 – 11 December 1941) was born in Shanghai, China, to an English mother and an American father. Like Rupert Brooke, whom he admired, John Magee had been educated at Rugby. At the age of eighteen, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force, trained as a pilot, and was sent to England to fly a Supermarine Spitfire with the 412 Fighter Squadron. One day, after a high altitude test flight, John wrote his parents a letter and enclosed a copy of the above poem – inspired by that test flight. He died a few months later, when his plane was involved in a mid-air collision over Lincolnshire. He collided with that of another British military pilot and was buried in the County.

Norfolk at War (John_Gillespie_Magee,_Jr)2

9. King Edward VII School, Kings Lynn was attacked and the fires put out by schoolboys:
Kings Lynn was attacked twice in June 1942. In the early light of 12th a lone Dornier was responsible for the deaths of seventeen civilians and a number of service personnel. The Eagle hotel and nearby premises were destroyed. On 30 June five bombs lodged in the roof of King Edward VII Grammar School, masters and boarders – who had gone to bed – rushing out onto the roof to douse the flames. The dormitories where dozens of boys had been sleeping were burnt out.

Norfolk at War (Kings Lynn School)
King Edward VII Grammar School, Kings Lynn. Photo: EDP.

The author was a boarder at King Edward VII Grammar School many years later and slept in the rebuilt dormitories for the six years of his secondary education. We boys knew of this tale, of course, and many times tried to work out how it was possible to get onto the roof from our dormitories. It was not: the only way would have been if the walls of the dormitories and adjacent washrooms had been blasted out, which was quite possible. The only other way was through the circular stairs off the main hall of the school, via the Geography room – this was proved when several boarders were caught on the school roof in their pyjamas at 3 in the morning.

10. Why were the raids of 1942 called the ‘Baedeker’ raids?
The Baedeker Guides began in 1827, and quickly became indispensable to many world travellers. The first was of the Rhine and was apparently produced to save tourists having to pay a personal guide. They gained a reputation for thoroughness – Karl Baedeker was once seen climbing the steps of Milan Cathedral, placing a coin on every twentieth step so that his count would be accurate. In 1942 Exeter, Bath, York, Canterbury and Norwich were all selected for maximum damage because, in the words of Baron Gustav Von Sturm, ‘We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker guide.’ Allied bombers were to destroy the company’s HQ in Leipzig the following year.

11. Conscientious Objectors were not always treated harshly.
Conscientious objectors regularly came before Norwich courts and their reception was far from hostile. The cause of those who could not find it in their conscience to harm another or fight had gained wider acceptance during the Great War and now it was no different. Providing a person was prepared to do some non-combatant service, they could be excused: refusal almost certainly meant prison.

Norfolk at War (Objectors)
Conscientious Objectors.

12. Lord Woolton Pie was probably the most famous recipe of the war.
It was reputedly created at the Savoy Hotel, London by Francis Latry. It was named after Lord Woolton who became Minister of Food in 1940. It contains no meat. Ingredients: 1 lb each of potato, spring onion, cauliflower or cabbage, carrot, swede, 1 teaspoon Marmite of similar, tablespoon oatmeal. Other vegetables can be substituted which, in Norfolk, would probably include peas as crops reached record levels, especially in 1944 and 1945. For the pastry: 6oz flour, 1 and a half oz butter, 1 and a half oz lard, 2oz raw potatoes.

Norfolk at War (Woolton Pie)
An Example of a Woolton Pie.

13. The first attack on Berlin came from RAF Marham.
Three Mosquitos of RAF Bomber Command, flying from Marham in Norfolk, were the first to attack Berlin – this was on 30 January, ten years to the day that Hitler had been sworn in as Chancellor of Germany. They were over Berlin at 11.am, dropped their bombs and returned to Norfolk safely.

Norfolk at War (Mosquito)
Mosquitos of RAF Bomber Command.

14. There was No Bridge Over The River Kwai!
When Singapore surrendered, many men from East Anglia became prisoners of war. They were from three battalions of the Royal Norfolk Regiment, the 4th, 5th and 6th, two battalions of the Suffolk Regiment, the 4th and 5th, and the 1st and 2nd battalions of the Cambridgeshire Regiment. Conditions on Singapore Island were harsh and the poor diet resulted in various health problems – dysentery, ulcers, malaria and eye problems amongst many.

Norfolk at War3

In 1952, the French novelist, Pierre Boulle, wrote ‘Le Pont de la Riviere Kwai’. It is fictional, a story depicting the experiences of British prisoners building the bridge over the Mae Klong (there is no actual Bridge over the River Kwai). Boulle had been a prisoner of war in Thailand. The book won the Prix Saint-Beuve in 1952. A famous film directed by David Lean, ‘The Bridge over the River Kwai’, won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1957. After the success of the film the Thais faced a problem as large numbers of tourists came to see the bridge, which did not actually exist. The problem was solved by renaming the Mae Klong river the Kwae Yai for several miles – the bridge built by the prisoners being on this stretch.

15. The Women’s Land Army kept agriculture going.
The Women’s Land Army was highly organised and supplies were not to be sniffed at: on joining, each girl was supplied with two green jerseys, two pairs of breeches, two overall coats, two pairs of dungarees, 6 pairs of stockings, three shirts, one pair of ankle boots, one pair of shoes, one pair of gun boots, one hat, one overcoat with shoulder titles, one oilskin or mackintosh, to towels, one oil skin sou’wester, a green armlet and a metal badge: after every six months and again after two years she received special cloth badges culminating after four years with one in scarlet.

Norfolk at War (Land Army)
Members of the Women’s Land Army. Photo: Wikipedia.

16. The first onshore on D-Day were men from the Royal Norfolks.
It was decided at these meetings that the 1st Royal Norfolks, and the 7th in following up, should be amongst the first troops to land in France. By the end of May an invasion fleet of nearly seven thousand craft was assembled. The RAF and USAAF were at the same time launching a total of 144,800 bomber missions, losing 1,616 bombers and twelve thousand men. In contrast, the Germans made about 120 reconnaissance missions over Britain in this period.

Norfolk at War (D-Day_ Getty)
D-Day Landings. Photo: Getty Images

17. What Sidney (Basher) Bates, VC said before he died.
On 6 August 1944 near Sourdeval, France, the Norfolk Regiment’s position was under attack by the 10th SS Panzer Division. Corporal Bates was commanding a Section when the enemy began penetrating deep into the area occupied by his section.  When a Bren gunner, and his best friend was killed next to him he seized a light machine gun and charged, firing on the enemy. Moving forward through a hail of bullets, he ran towards the Germans, shooting from the hip and shouting:

‘Take that, you bastards – and that, and that.’

Although twice wounded, he remained undaunted and continued firing until the enemy started to withdraw away from his fire. At that moment he was wounded for a third time by mortar splinters and fell to the ground for a final time. However, he still continued to fire until his strength failed him and he passed out.  By this time the enemy had withdrawn and the situation was restored and the immediate threat to his platoon subsided. Sidney (Basher) Bates died two days later on 8 August 1944.

Norfolk at War (Sidney_Bates_VC_Wikipedia)
Sidney (Basher) Bates as a Lance-Corporal. Photo: Wikipedia

The final costs of fighting around Sourdeval for the Norfolks was 160 casualties out of 550. The recommendation for the award was made by Major Cooper-Key, the commanding officer of B Company of the 1st Battalion. The recommendation was turned down initially but Cooper-Key persevered.

18. The first V1’s attack Norfolk.
Exactly one week after bombers took off from English airfields to begin the D-Day assault, a new weapon reached Britain – the ‘flying bomb’ or ‘doodle-bug’, twenty-seven in all, the first reaching Gravesend in the early morning of 13 June. Later, when they became more sophisticated, deadly and increasingly difficult to shoot down, they were known as V.1s and V.2s. The first one seen from the ground in Norwich flew harmlessly over the city on 26 June.

Norfolk at War4
Illustation of a C10/V-1 Flying Bomb. Photo: Courtesy of Stephen Browning.

19. People in 1944 were craving ice cream.
In the summer of 1944, the ban on going to the seaside had already been lifted with trains and buses to Great Yarmouth, Hunstanton, Cromer and other resorts packed. From November some coastal towns were authorised to clear beach obstructions and the army began to take out mines. There was a particular yearning for ice-cream, such that the Food Minister, Colonel Llewellen, allowed supplies to be made available for its manufacture. Road signs were put back – some pointing to the wrong places – and there was talk of what was reasonable in terms of public street lighting.

Norfolk at War (Ice Cream)
The joy of an ice cream!

20. The first man on occupied Japanese soil was from Norwich.
On 8.15 am local time on 6 August 1945, an atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. On 9 the August another atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The Japanese surrendered and the war was over. The main ceremony of surrender was on board the US battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay on 2 September. Ten days afterwards, Lord Louis Mountbatten took the formal surrender of all Japanese forces within the South East Asia area command. The first man of the British occupation forces to walk upon Japanese territory was Lieutenant Colin Chapman, commander of the cruiser Newfoundland. He was from Norwich.

THE END

Sources:
Text by kind permission of Stephen Browning via:
https://www.stephenbrowningbooks.co.uk/norfolk-at-war-1935-45/
Photos: Daniel Tink photos are by kind permission of him. All others photos acknowledged as stated.

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items which are considered deserving of wider exposure. In pursuing this aim, the Group endeavours, where possible, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. Nevertheless, please rest assured that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to sources, are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.

Notable 19th Century Norfolk Murders, Part 2.

By Naomi Clifford.
(Reproduced here by kind permission of the author)

Naomi1
Naomi Clifford writes about the forgotten stories of women in history. Her book ‘Women and the Gallows 1797-1837: Unfortunate Wretches’ looks at the lives and fortunes of 131 women hanged in England and Wales.

Part 2: Catherine Frary and Frances Billing.

In my last blogpost, I told the story of Mary Wright from Wighton in Norfolk, who in 1832 consulted Hannah Shorten, a local “cunning woman” or “witch” before she decided to poison her husband William by putting arsenic in a plum cake. Mary was suffering from a pathological jealousy, and it is possible that Shorten encouraged her into her actions (which also accidentally killed Mary’s father) although we have no proof of this and Shorten was not called to appear at Mary’s trial.

Two years later, however, Shorten appeared as a witness at a double murder trial, again featuring poison, at the Norwich Assizes. The deaths occurred in the Burnham Westgate (now known as Burnham Market), which lies a mile from the north Norfolk coast and five miles from Wells-Next-the-Sea. The inhabitants of a row of three terraced cottages in North Street were involved.

Frances (or Fanny) Billing, her husband James and eight children, the youngest of whom was eight, lived in the cottage at one end; Peter Taylor and his wife Mary, who were childless, were in the middle; and Catherine Frarey, her husband Robert and their three children rented rooms above Thomas Wake’s carpenters shop, at the other end.

Washerwoman Fanny was a steady sort, a church-goer who regularly took communion. She was described later by a reporter as a “woman of no ordinary endowments,” the meaning of which is unclear, but the writer also noted her resilience and firmness of purpose, so perhaps it was her character he was commenting on rather than her appearance. Her husband James was an agricultural labourer. Like Mary Wright and her husband, and their neighbours, these were very poor people living as steadily and respectably as they could without benefit of education.

The Billings’ neighbour Peter Taylor was a journeyman shoemaker but he had suffered ill health and now worked as a sometime barber, pub waiter and singer. His wife Mary was a shoebinder. As is often the way with tight-knit groups of people living close by, close relationships can arise, and around 1834 Peter Taylor and Fanny Billing started an affair, which soon became the subject of gossip in their small community. James Billing became aware of it and, enraged when he discovered the two in close conversation out at the shared privy, beat them both. Fanny later had James arrested and bound over to keep the peace at the local Petty Sessions.

Like Fanny Billings, childminder Catherine (Kate) Frary, aged about 46, had once had a good name but there were now rumours about her relationship with a Mr Gridley. She was known to associate with fortune-tellers and witches. Her husband Robert, once a fisherman, was now an agricultural labourer. On 21 February, Elizabeth Southgate, whose baby daughter Harriet was minded by Kate Frary, was told that her child was very ill. At the house, she found her baby in great distress and Robert Frary, who had been ill for two weeks, groaning in agony in his bed. Elizabeth gave Harriet a drink of warm water sweetened with sugar but she expired in the early hours of the following morning. A doctor determined that she died of natural causes.

In the days that followed, Robert Frarey showed no sign of improvement, but his wife Kate and her friend Fanny Billing were seen often together whispering with Hannah Shorten, who arrived on the day of baby Southgate’s funeral.

During this visit Shorten went with Kate Frary to see Fanny Billing, who gave her some pennies and asked her to get some white arsenic to kill mice and rates. There is some question over whether it was Shorten or Billing who went to the pharmacy with Frary, but whoever did the purchasing, the result was that a quantity of arsenic was bought.

Frarey and Billing (Poison)
Massive native arsenic with quartz and calcite, from Ste. Marie-aux-mines, Alsace, France. Photo by Aram Dulyan taken at the Natural History Museum, London.

Shortly afterwards, Elizabeth Southgate came to enquire about Robert Frary’s health. In court she described Fanny Billing offering her porter, which she had poured into a teacup. Elizabeth saw sediment in it and handed it back saying, “I should not take sugar in porter.” Her suspicions were growing but whether or not she guessed the truth at this stage, it was a wise move. Billing handed the drink to Robert Frary, saying, “Drink it up. It will do you good.” When Northgate returned that evening, Robert was retching violently into a basin, after which he deteriorated quickly and 48 hours later, on 27 February, while Elizabeth was visiting once more, he died. His wife and Fanny Billing were attending him. He was buried shortly afterwards at St Mary’s in Burnham Market.

Gossip must have started immediately. On a trip to Wells with Kate Frary some time after the funeral, Elizabeth Southgate talked to her about the cause of Robert’s demise:

“If I were you, Mrs Frary, I would have my husband taken up [disinterred] and examined, to shut the world’s mouth.”

“Oh, no,” she replied, “I should not like it. Would you?”

“Yes, Mrs Frary, I would like it, for it will be a check on you and your children after you.”

Frarey and Billing (Burnham Market Parish Church)
Burnham Market Parish Church Westgate St Mary at the west end of the long and wide market place.© Copyright Colin Smith and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Barely a week after Robert Frary was put in the ground, Fanny Billing was persuading a neighbour to accompany her to buy arsenic, saying it was for a Mrs Webster (who later denied all knowledge). Inspired by the successful despatch of Robert, Fanny and Kate were now determined on a new victim: Mary Taylor, whose husband Peter was having an affair with Fanny.

With the arsenic bought, all that was needed was opportunity. On 12 March, while Mary Taylor was out at work, Billing or Frary or Peter Taylor, or perhaps some of them in combination, poisoned the dumplings and gravy she had left out for the evening’s supper. When Mary fell ill, she had the misfortune to be nursed by Kate Frary. People came and went, and neither Frary nor Billing seem to have been too guarded in what they did nor said while they did so. William Powell, the village blacksmith, stopped by for a haircut and shave. He saw Kate Frary bring in a bowl of gruel and, using the tip of a knife, add to it what looked like powdered sugar. Phoebe Taylor, married to Peter Taylor’s brother, visited to tend to Mary and care for Peter. She saw Fanny Billing take a paper out of her pocket and pour its contents into a teacup, throwing the paper in the fire.

Eventually, with Mary in convulsions, Phoebe Taylor and Kate Frary summoned a doctor. He found that Mary’s pulse was feeble and she died in his presence. A coroner’s inquest was ordered, and Mary Taylor’s body was opened in her own kitchen. Her stomach was taken to the pharmacist in Burnham Market, where it was found to be riddled with arsenic. Next it was taken to Norwich where more tests were conducted by surgeon Richard Griffin, again confirming arsenic. The atmosphere in Burnham Market must have been febrile, when James Billing, who was already on the alert, in an unguarded moment, accepted a cup of tea from his wife. He became very ill, but recovered.

Fanny Billing was arrested on 18 March and taken to Walsingham Gaol. Kate Frary then asked Fanny’s sons to drive her to Salle, “to see a woman there who is something of a witch [not Shorten], that that woman might tie Mr Curtis’s tongue so that he might not question my mother.” Mr Curtis was the gaolkeeper at Walsingham. Fanny’s sons questioned why, if their mother was innocent, Frarey should wish this. The indiscreet comments did not stop. When Peter Taylor was arrested, Frary shouted out to him, “There you go, Peter, hold your own, and they can’t hurt you.” There were numerous other examples.

Kate Frary and Hannah Shorten were also arrested and Robert Frary’s and Harriet Southhgate’s graves opened. Peter Taylor’s house was searched for signs of arsenic. All three suspects, Billing, Frary and Taylor were committed for trial at the Lent Assizes at Norwich, but charges against Shorten did not stick. Taylor escaped when the grand jury chose to “ignore” his indictment as an accessory before the fact.1

In a packed courtroom on 7 August, appearing before Justice Bolland, Frary and Billing were both found guilty of both murders (no discernable traces of arsenic were found in baby Southgate’s body). As he condemned them to death, the judge referred to the women’s “profligate, vicious and abandoned course of life”, full of “guilty lusts”. He urged them towards repentance and sincere contrition and ordered their bodies to be buried within the confines of Norwich Castle. Kate Frary, often agitated, needed support. She went into “strong hysterics” and her shrieks could be heard after she was removed from court. Billing was more stalwart, and showed no emotion as the verdicts and sentence were given.

The womens’ execution on 10 August attracted vast crowds into Norwich from the surrounding villages. All routes leading to the castle were thronged with “persons of various ages and of both sexes (the weaker vessels being the more numerous)”.2 To reduce the distance the women would have to walk to the gallows, the apparatus was moved to the upper end of the bridge, which also had the effect that more people were able to see the action. At 12 noon the great gates opened and the Rev James Brown, prayer book in hand, followed by “the two unfortunate beings”, Frary dressed in mourning for her husband and Billing in a “coloured clothes”, white handkerchiefs covering their faces emerged for their last journey. Billing walked with “a firm step”, but Frary was on the point of fainting and had to be carried up the steps of the scaffold.

Frarey and Billing (William Calcraft)
The executioner William Calcraft was in attendance.

The Norfolk Chronicle described the scene:

“It was a sight which no one, but an alien to humanity, could look on unmoved”.

After the ropes were adjusted, hooded and holding each other by the hand, the friends dropped and were “launched into eternity”. Frary was “much convulsed” but Billing’s neck broke and she suffered less. The crowd was silent.

Frarey and Billing (Death Masks)
Image courtesy of unknownmisandry.blogspot.co.uk

Peter Taylor, who escaped trial, was among the spectators but was forced to flee when the crowd turned on him. He managed to make it his home village of Whissonsett but he was not safe. Before their executions, the women had made fulsome confessions, implicating him, if not of being directly involved at least of knowing what they were doing. The investigation was reopened and on 29 August, scarcely three weeks after Frary and Billing had been executed, he was committed for trial as an accessory before the fact to his wife’s murder. He was found guilty and, insisting on his innocence to the last (which meant that he was denied the sacrament), in “a state of the greatest prostration of strength, both mental and corporeal,” on 23 April 1836 was executed at Norwich Castle.

Frarey and Billing (Peter Taylor)
The Life, Trial and Execution of Peter Taylor broadsheet. Public Domain.

Serial poisoning is generally a solitary crime, characterised by subterfuge and secret triumph over the victims. It is not often conducted in pairs or trios, which makes Billing and Frary (with or without Peter Taylor) so unusual. It is noteworthy that they were unable to keep quiet at the appropriate times and talked unguardedly, raising suspicion and indeed certainty of what they were doing. Even if they had other victims, and there was plenty of speculation that they did, they were, in the end, singularly unsuccessful in getting away with their crimes undetected, precisely because they could not keep their mouths shut.

Billing and Frary were also unusual because they were women. Although they committed the murders at the start of a run of female poisoners, which culminated in the so-called poisoning panic of the 1840s, and despite the general feeling that poisoning was a female crime, the truth is that poisoning is more likely to be committed by men. When the victim is female, the perpetrator is significantly more likely to be male; when the victim is male, the poisoner is equally likely to be male or female.

Perhaps the perception of poisoning as a female crime arose from the fact that when women did choose to murder, which was rare enough in itself, poisoning was often their weapon of choice. Female murderers did not often use brute force to kill their victims (unless, of course, those victims were smaller and weaker: children and newborn babies). Women tended to deliver their killer blows using the medium that was most available and most effective: food, laced with poison, generally arsenic. Perhaps that accounts for the poisoning panic: as the judge at Frary and Billing’s trials said, poison;

“was one of the worst acts that can be resorted to, because it is impossible to be guarded against such a determination, which is but too often carried into effect, when no one is present to observe it but the eye of God.”

There must have been numerous cases in history where women’s efforts to drastically change their lives by ending someone else’s (most often their husband’s) by putting arsenic in their food went entirely undetected because these women had cooler heads and operated on their own. Frary and Billing were astonishingly obvious. Perhaps they encouraged by Shorten and her like to think that what they were doing had magical qualities or that their friends and neighbours trusted them so much that they would not begin to suspect them. In a world where justice was so unreliable it was fairly certain that their detection and punishment would follow.

Stuff of Dreams theatre company toured with a play, written by Cordelia Spence and Tim Lane,  based on Frary and Billing. Watch the trailer: nice and atmospheric.

THE END

Postscript:
Hannah Shorten is found, aged 80, in the 1851 census, living in Wells and described as a pauper.
James Billing, the only spouse to survive, died in 1871, aged 84, in Alderbury, Wiltshire.

Much of the detail of the case was given in the Norfolk Chronicle, 15 August 1835.

Sources:
https://www.naomiclifford.com/norfolk-murders-catherine-frarey-frances-billing/#easy-footnote-2-2113
Links to: https://naomiclifford.com for her website.
https://www.facebook.com/naomicliffordauthor/ for her Facebook page.
https://twitter.com/naomiclifford for her Twitter account.

Notable 19th Century Norfolk Murders, Part 1.

By Naomi Clifford.
(Reproduced here by kind permission of the author)

Naomi1
Naomi Clifford writes about the forgotten stories of women in history. Her book ‘Women and the Gallows 1797-1837: Unfortunate Wretches’ looks at the lives and fortunes of 131 women hanged in England and Wales.

This is a convoluted story, of two sets of murders in a small area of Norfolk within a couple of years. The killings had several unusual factors: one was that the murderers were female; another was that one set of deaths involved a murderous duo, of female friends rather than lovers (although the plot involves the lover of one of them); another was that the murderers used poison, argued to be the female murderers’ weapon of choice (we’ll come to that in Part 2); and finally, a ‘witch’, the same ‘witch’, played a role in both narratives.

Part 1: Mary Ann Wright

We’ll start with the story of Mary Ann Wright (née Darby), who was born in 1803 in the tiny north Norfolk village of Wighton, which lies between Walsingham to the south and Wells Next the Sea to the North. In 1829, aged 26, she married William Wright, a 34-year-old “teamerman”, whose job was to deliver carts of grain pulled by five horses. (1)

Naomi3

Mary and William lived in Wighton, with Mary’s father Richard Darby. They were poor, illiterate people and they lived physically tough lives, but village life was close-knit and stable. Everyone knew everyone else.

The couple had children but it difficult to say with certainty how many. There are records for Samuel, born in 1829, but reports of Mary’s trial mention two children.

It was well known that Mary suffered poor mental health. She had been affected both by the death in March 1832 of Samuel, at the age of three, (2) and another child. One person said in court that Mary was “never in her right mind” after the birth of her last child, so postpartum psychosis is a possibility. It was also assumed by her neighbours that a heredity factor played a part: her mother had spent 18 months in the asylum. Her neighbours noted that she had been behaving oddly, for example setting fire to the tablecloth and the chairs in her house.

Mary’s illness appears to have manifested itself as pathological jealousy. She told a friend that she would “stick a knife in him [William]” if he gave part of the fish he had just bought to her perceived rival and told another that she would not mind “running a knife” through him or “doing his business in some other way.” After she was arrested, magistrates heard evidence that she had made previous attempts on his life and on her own. (3)

Mary’s threats, and even her efforts, to kill William were brushed off at the time. No one could envisage what happened next. Mary was becoming increasingly desperate and had visited the local “cunning woman”, Hannah Shorten, at Wells, a walk of some two and a half miles. Shorten, whose services would have included casting love spells, creating charms and telling fortunes, made her living by offering magic to people for whom the Church’s teachings had little appeal. Many in poor rural societies preferred the power of folk remedies and curses; they must have seemed more direct ways to reach, and destroy, your enemies than prayer. One of Shorten’s methods for achieving your desires was to burn arsenic with salt. Whether she encouraged Mary to use arsenic in other ways, or whether Mary misinterpreted her advice, is not known.

Naomi4 (Wighton Church)
Wighton All Saints Church © Copyright Adrian S Pye and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Arsenic was a cheap poison used commonly for the killing of vermin. Thruppence (3d) would buy you three ounces, but you only needed enough to cover the tip of a knife to kill someone. It looked innocuous and could be hidden in flour or bread, or cakes. It was also tasteless but could produce a burning sensation after it was ingested. If you were intent on murder, the challenge was to acquire and administer it without attracting suspicion. As the symptoms of arsenic poisoning sometimes resembled gastroenteritis, it is likely that many poisoners “got away with it”. Vomiting, diarrhoea and inflammation of the stomach and bowels were easily mistaken for signs of cholera.

Mary appears to have planned the murder carefully. She asked Sarah Hastings to come with her on a shopping trip to Wells Next the Sea and told her that the local rat catcher had asked her to get some arsenic. Unfortunately, during the journey she quizzed Sarah on how much it would take to kill a person, something Hastings later described in court. While the women were in Wells Mary also bought currants. She said she was planning to make a plum cake. (4)

A few days later, on the morning of Saturday 1 December, William Wright rose early. He had been instructed by his employer to take a load of corn to Cley, just over 10 miles from Wighton. Mary gave him two plum cakes for the journey. After preparing the waggon with the help of Richard Darby, his father-in-law, and before he started out on the road, they repaired to a public house for a pot of beer and to eat the cakes. Richard returned home and William went on towards Cley with another farm worker, William Hales. He seemed fine at first but later became so ill and was in such agony, lying on sacks on the floor and unable to move, that he could not make the return journey. Instead, Hales took the team back to Wighton and Wright was carried to a public house where Charles Buck, the local surgeon, examined him. Mary was sent for. William finally expired on Sunday night, less than 48 hours after eating the cakes. Everyone, except Mary of course, blamed cholera and was terrified. (5)

When Mary returned to Wighton, she found that her father had also died. (6) The trouble with poison, especially in food, is that you could not be sure the wrong people will consume it. Both men were buried at Wighton Church on 4 December 1832.

It was a chance remark by Sarah Hastings that Mary had recently bought arsenic which led to suspicion falling on her. Four days after the funerals, the bodies were dug up and examined by Charles Buck in the chancel of Wighton Church; the stomachs were sent to Mr Bell, a chemist at Wells, who found they contained raisins from the plum cake. Bell used four separate tests to establish that they also contained arsenic.

Naomi5 (House of Correction)
Walsingham House of Correction © Copyright Elliott Brown and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons licence

Mary was arrested 16 miles from Wighton, at Oulton, and appeared at a special sitting of local magistrates. She was hardly able to speak and remained almost completely silent thereafter. Shortly afterwards, she was committed to Walsingham Prison for trial at the Lent Assizes.

A decision was made to prosecute her only for the murder of her husband, possibly because it was felt that she had not intended the death of her father. The Norfolk Chronicle (7) reported that she had made a full confession before she left Walsingham for Norwich Castle but she nevertheless pleaded not guilty to murder at her trial before Judge Baron Bolland. Witnesses from Wighton testified to William Wright’s sudden illness and Mary’s expedition to buy arsenic; Charles Buck described William’s death and Mr Bell his chemical tests. Mr Crosse, a surgeon from Norwich, declared that Hannah Shorten was not called as a witness.

……child bearing is apt to produce insanity [but] insanity from child bearing is mostly temporary.

Naomi6 (Bolland)
Justice William Bolland, by Thomas Bridgford. Lithograph, 1840 NPG D31931 © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Mary was found guilty and condemned to death, her body to be buried in the precincts of Norwich Castle. She then had what was described as an “hysteric fit” after which she declared she was pregnant. After some delay, Bolland assembled a panel of 12 matrons to examine Mary and after an hour they returned to court to declare that she was not with child. Perhaps prompted by Mary’s vehemence, Bolland then asked the opinion of three “eminent accoucheurs”, including Mr Crosse, who declared that Mary was indeed expecting a child. Five months later, on 11 July, Mary gave birth to a girl, Elizabeth. (8) and Mary would not have been surprised to learn that her execution was then scheduled, for 17 August. (9) However, at some point before this date, her sentence was commuted to transportation for life.

Mary did not reach Australia. She died in Norwich Castle in November. Cause of death: “by the visitation of God”, (10) meaning no one knew why she died. Did a brain tumour or other natural disease affect her personality and eventually cause her death? Was her death a suicide? Or perhaps the double loss of her babies, combined with postpartum psychosis, caused some aberration of mind that lead to extreme jealousy and destructive behaviour. We cannot know. The newspaper reports of her trial imply that a kind of medical defence was made but this was not spelled out and it was not strong enough to save her from a death sentence.

Naomi7 (St Michaels)

THE END

Reference Book Sources:

  1. “Teamerman” is a specifically Norfolk term, referring to the ploughman who ran a system of alternating horses to plough fields and to the waggoner who used a team of five horses to pull carts of grain. Naomi Riches, in her book The Agricultural Revolution in Norfolk (Routledge, 1937), has a detailed explanation.
  2. Samuel was buried at Wighton Church. I could not find records for any other child born to the couple.
  3. Norfolk Chronicle, 15 December 1832.
  4. Plum cake contained raisins rather than plums.
  5. Norfolk Chronicle, 15 December 1832
  6. Hereford Times, 29 December 1832, quoting Suffolk Chronicle.
  7. 30 March 1833.
  8. Norfolk Chronicle, 20 July 1833.
  9. Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette, 10 August 1833.
  10. London Evening Standard, 6 November 1833.
  11. The church, in central Norwich, was destroyed in the Blitz.

Sources:
https://www.naomiclifford.com/norfolk-murders-mary-wright/
Links to: https://naomiclifford.com for her website.
https://www.facebook.com/naomicliffordauthor/ for her Facebook page.
https://twitter.com/naomiclifford for her Twitter account.

Weird Georgian Beauty Treatments!

Norwich, 4th March 1736: It was on this day when the City ladies read with mounting excitement of “A Fresh and Neat Parcel of the Royal Beautifying Fluid” which had arrived in Norwich. Praise for its efficacy was not modest:

“So exceedingly valued by the Ladies of Quality and all who have used it for  its transcendent Excellency in beautifying the Face, Neck and Hands, to the most exquisite Perfection possible. It gives an inexpressible fine Air to the Features of the Face and a surprising Handsomeness to the Neck and Hands which it immediately makes excellent Smooth, Fine and delicately White” As if that is not enough:

“It takes away all disagreeable Redness, Spots, Pimples, Heats, Roughness, Morphews [blemish or birth mark], Worms in the Face, Sun-burnt, Freckles or any other Discolouring in the Skin”.

It needed only a few wipes with a little of the royal fluid, dropped on to a clean napkin, to make a lady’s face “fine, clear, soft and fair, as to cause Admiration in the Beholders”. The same retailer, William Chase, a Norwich bookseller, also stocked “the incomparable powder for the teeth, which has given such great satisfaction to most of the Nobility and Gentry in England for these Twenty Years”.

(Norwich Mercury, 4/5 March 1736)

Beauty is big business: thousands of column inches are devoted daily to discussing the latest beauty trends, from the simple to the absurd. But, as historical writer Catherine Curzon revealed for History Extra in 2016, the beauty regimes of the Georgian era could put even the most bizarre modern fads to shame:

Bless them, the Georgians cared greatly about their appearance. Indeed, the lure of a pretty face in make-up became so strong in the Georgian period, and was considered so irresistible, that parliament, apparently, considered passing a law to protect men from being duped by painted ladies with designs on their purse:

“An Act to protect men from being beguiled into marriage by false adornments. All women, of whatever rank, age, profession or degree, whether virgins, maids or widows, that shall, from and after such Act, impose upon, seduce or betray into matrimony, any of His Majesty’s subjects, by the scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes and bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the law in force against witch-craft and like misdemeanours and that the marriage upon conviction shall stand null and void.”

Put forward in 1770 likely as a wry jab at fashion rather than a serious law, this amendment to the Witchcraft Act was never passed, nor did it make it into the debating chamber. Nevertheless, beauty treatments were abundant in Georgian Britain. Here are just seven which today may be considered as the most weird and wonderful…….!

White, White and White!
Our obsession with acquiring the perfect sun-kissed tan would have utterly perplexed the Georgians. In the 18th century a suntan was a sure sign that one worked outdoors, whereas the polite, wealthy classes remained indoors and out of the sun’s glare. The most basic and perhaps famous Georgian fashion was porcelain white skin, for both men and women.

Alongside horse manure and vinegar, the main ingredient in skin-whitening creams and powders was lead. Daubed liberally on the face and neck, these creams and powders helped to achieve that all-important ‘never been outdoors’ look. Whiteness was accentuated by using blue colouring to highlight veins, while lips and cheeks were tinted with yet more lead – this time coloured with carmine [a bright-red pigment obtained from the aluminium salt of carminic acid] or even with mixes containing highly toxic mercury.

With the widespread use of lead, it was hardly surprising that fashionable sorts began to suffer serious reactions to their make-up. From eye disorders to digestive problems and even, in extreme cases, death, the price of following the fashion for blanc was high. The prized porcelain skin tone so beloved of Georgian fashionistas wasn’t financially easy to achieve either. Deadly or not, skin creams were an expensive addition to a lady’s make-up bag and for those seeking beauty on a budget the options were limited: for both hair and face a light dusting of wheat flour might have to suffice.

Beauty Treatments (Kitty Fisher)
A portrait of Kitty Fisher by Sir Joshua Reynolds, painted between 1723 and 1792. Some sources say the celebrated courtesan died from the effects of lead-based cosmetics. (Photo by Carl De Souza)

Speaking of Patches…
Also known as mouches, beauty patches were small clippings of black velvet, silk or satin that were attached to the face to cover blemishes, including smallpox scars and damage wrought by white lead, or just as a bit of decoration. Often kept in highly decorative containers, these patches enjoyed many years of popularity.

Beauty Treatments (Box)
Cylindrical box, possibly by Joseph Taylor, dated from 1797 that would have contained pills, cachous (lozenges to sweeten the breath) or patches to cover smallpox scars. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Just as fans could be used to communicate a secret message, the position of these skin patches eventually came to be associated with coded meanings. For example, if one wished to show political allegiance, a patch on the right-hand-side of the face denoted a Tory while a Whig wore a patch on the left. On a more intimate note, a patch in the corner of the eye might be an invitation to a would-be paramour.

Unlike face creams, patches weren’t only the preserve of the rich. If you couldn’t afford finely shaped silk and velvet then a little bit of clipped mouse skin would do just as well. Patches even appeared in many pieces of Georgian art; perhaps most famously in William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress:

Georgian Beauty (a harlots progress)
These were a series of paintings and engravings in which heroine Moll Hackabout’s face – once fresh and pretty – takes on more and more patches until she resembles the haggard brothel madame who initiated her into London brothel life. For Moll, the patches no doubt covered the telltale signs of diseases such as syphilis – a world away from the fashionable ballrooms of France where a patch might mean flirtation, seduction and intrigue.

Even Hugh Hair!
The popular image of the later 18th century is one in which enormous and flamboyant wigs teetered precariously atop the heads of fashionable ladies, but this isn’t actually accurate. There was plenty of teetering hair but it was often real, with wigs generally worn only by 18th-century men.

Ladies and gents alike achieved their fashionable pale hair colour by applying hair powder, which was made from flour or starch and puffed onto the head with a pair of bellows [a device constructed to furnish a strong blast of air]. For that typically Georgian ‘big haired’ look the wealthy employed an army of stylists who built elaborate structures atop their heads around wooden frames padded with extra sections often made from horse hair.

Curling tongs were also developed: these resembled a pair of blunt scissors, with two metal prongs and wooden handles. When the prongs were heated in the fire the hair could then be wrapped around them and held in place until the curl had set. Alternatively, clay rollers were heated in an oven and then applied to the hair or wig. Heads also would often be adorned with wax fruit and other decorations such as flowers or even model sailing ships, and the most elaborate hairstyles would remain in place for days or weeks at a time. Within these monumental headpieces our fashionable gentleman and ladies acquired the occasional lice, but the Georgians had an answer for that too: specially designed rods were sold that could be slid between the layers of hair and used to scratch the lice bites, while ensuring that their fashionable hairstyles stayed perfect. If the lice became really itchy there was always the possibility of treating them with mercury, but given that this was known to potentially cause madness or death, a scratching rod was usually the preferred option.

Beauty Treatments (Barber)
A barber dispensing powder over his customer, from a print after Carle Vermat, c1700. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Mouse Eyebrows
With lead liberally applied to the face as a matter of routine, it is hardly surprising that people’s eyebrows often fell out. Georgian fashionistas therefore adopted a new approach and began to pluck out or shave what eyebrow hair remained before pencilling on a new brow or using lead or burnt cork to colour one in.

As black brows became a popular look, occasional mentions of a rather strange new fashion began to emerge: in 1718, celebrated poet Matthew Prior wrote a satirical poem about Helen and Jane, who wear eyebrows made of mouse skin. Evidence for mouse skin brows remains scant, but mention of them does appear in satire throughout the early 18th century.

It was a ‘Must’ to Pad the right places
Many 21st-century celebrity careers have been established upon (or at least bolstered by) the strength of a shapely bottom. Yet this is nothing new: fashionable Georgian men were no strangers to a bit of strategic padding.

Beauty Treatments (Ballroom)
‘Hackney Assembly. The Graces, the Graces, Remember the Graces’, 1812, artist anon. Ballroom scene in which a man is presented to a woman. Pads could be inserted to breeches to give the appearance of muscular calves, says Catherine Curzon. (Photo by Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Skin-tight breeches designed to show off the well-formed legs of their wearer became all the rage – but what if one didn’t have well-formed legs? For those who were too skinny to fill the garment, padding was the natural answer. Just like a modern padded Bra enhances the bosom, pads of fabric or horsehair could be inserted to breeches that would give the impression of muscled calves.

Georgian Beauty (The Dandies)

These pads could also be inserted anywhere else the male wearer might like a boost! These pads were the preserve of the most fashion-conscious of Georgian and Regency men. They found popularity among the highly fashionable, flamboyant chaps known as Dandies who wore corsetry and pads to create the perfect male shape.

Georgian Beauty (The Dandies)2
The Dandies at Work!

What about that Gleaming Smile!
With the upper classes indulging in all manner of sugary treats, it’s hardly surprising that the teeth of our Georgian beauties were far from perfect. Tooth powders (also known as dentifrice) were therefore used to whiten teeth: among their ingredients of cuttlefish and bicarbonate of soda was often the mysteriously named spirit of vitriol. Better-known today as sulphuric acid, this mineral (which we now know to be highly corrosive) certainly whitened the teeth, but primarily because it stripped them of their enamel completely.

Unsurprisingly, many Georgians required dental surgery and, without anaesthetic, such procedures were a skin-crawling affair. Once the troublesome tooth was removed, the richest patients could opt for a replacement live tooth to be purchased from a donor and threaded directly into the socket. Some of these live teeth had actually come from the mouths of corpses, bringing with them whatever disease and infections their original owner had been subject to.

If a pricey live tooth was beyond your means and a gap simply wouldn’t do, there were alternatives on offer: anything from a single tooth to a complete set of dentures could be constructed from materials including porcelain, ivory, or even the teeth of soldiers who died at the battle of Waterloo. Known as ‘Waterloo teeth’, these were gathered from the mouths of dead soldiers and became highly sought after. After all, a client knew that a Waterloo tooth had come not from a man who died of disease or a corpse dug up by grave robbers, but a young and (hopefully) healthy soldier who died honourably on the battlefield.

Beauty Treatments (Teeth)
A set of 18th-century dentures that once belonged to Arthur Richard Dillon (1721-1806/7), Archbishop of Narbonne in France. Archaeologists discovered them, still in his mouth, when they opened his coffin in London’s St Pancras graveyard during excavations in advance of construction work for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link’s new London terminus. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Plus a Face Pack!
Less well-known than white Georgian faces and huge hair is ‘Fard’, a regency face mask used to soothe sunburn and “cutaneous eruptions” [spots].

Fard was a mix of sweet almond oil, spermaceti [a waxy substance found in the head of a sperm whale] and honey that was dissolved over heat and, once cooled, applied to the face and left on overnight. The recipe, was first published in The Mirror of the Graces,1811 followed by reprints which must have meant that the fashion continued decades later.

Georgian Beauty (Fard Paste)

THE END

Catherine Curzon is the author of Life in the Georgian Court, published by Pen and Sword Books in 2016. Catherine also runs an 18th-century themed website named A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life.

Sources:
https://www.historyextra.com/period/georgian/7-weird-and-wonderful-georgian-beauty-treatments/
This Blog is based on various sources but inspired by Catherine Curzon, author of “Life in the Georgian Court”, by Pen and Sword Books . Curzon also runs an 18th-century themed website named “A Covent Garden Gilflirt’s Guide to Life” acessed via:  http://www.madamegilflurt.com/

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items of ‘general interest’ only. It endeavours, where required, to obtain permission to use other copyright owner’s material; however, for various reasons, identification of, and means of communicating with, owners can sometimes be difficult or impossible to establish. Nevertheless, please rest assured that the appropriate ‘credits’ are always given in our articles, and no violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.

SS White Swan: Gorleston’s Wreck!

From the southern end of the old Yarmouth harbour it is an unhindered route past Gorleston and down to Lowestoft, and indeed beyond. If, instead, you prefer to remain near rougher water then turn inshore and walk along the line of the concrete pier, towards the breakwater and the confusion of shallow water that performs there, known locally as the cauldron. Here, the waves rebound from both the pier structure and breakwaters and, dependant on wind and current direction, waves can come from at least three directions almost simultaneously, often forming a quite spectacular ‘clapotis’ (the lapping of water – French). Of course, if you choose to head further southwards from the cauldron, you are more than likely to see surfers, swimmers, kite surfers and wooden groynes. Then, a little further beyond, and a little offshore, a red buoy bobs above the surface movement of the water. It is there for a reason; it is there to mark the wreck of the once proud north country collier, the SS White Swan, which sank at that spot in 1916.

White Swan2
The Cauldron, between the old Yarmouth harbour and  Gorleston beach. Photo: EDP.

It was on the 30 September 2018 when Peggotty, of the Eastern Daily Press, set his own imagination to work as he passed this spot at an approaching low tide:

“At the south end of our sands, midway between the water’s edge and the warning buoy marking the remains of the wrecked collier White Swan from 1916, two heads appeared to be bobbing in the gentle sea, apparently without anybody on the shore nearby keeping an eye on them. As we drew closer, my concern increased because the number of swimmers now had risen to four, then six. Safety in numbers is reassuring, but I made sure my mobile phone was switched on, just in case…… Happily, my apprehension was groundless. There were no swimmers! The “black heads” on which I had kept a watchful [eye] were, in fact, the tops of some skeletal remains of the White Swan, the numbers increasing because the ebbing tide was revealing them.”

White Swan4
A remaining small section of the former SS White Swan. Photo: Unknown at present.

The SS White Swan was once a collier, owned by J. A. Dixon and T. N. Sample of Newcastle and built in April 1903 by the Blyth SB Company Ltd. She was a single screw ship, measuring 287.3 ft long with a 43.2 ft beam and weighing 2,173 gross tons. During the early part of November 1916, the White Swan, the only ship owned by the company at that time, was loaded with coal at West Hartlepool before leaving en-route to Greenwich, London. It was during this voyage, on the 17th November 1916 to be precise, that a violent storm erupted off the east coast of Norfolk and the ship’s Master, in his wisdom, decided to ride out the storm by sheltering off Scroby Sands. However, the ferocity of wind and waves had other ideas, causing the ship to drag her anchor and be driven relentlessly on to Gorleston beach – despite the frantic efforts of the crew to secure her.

White Swan3
The SS White Swan beached on Gorleston sands.

The collier’s eventual grave was to be on the low water mark of the beach, side on to the waves where her back was broken. The combination of the furious weather and the position of the ship, so close inshore, meant that it was impossible for the Gorleston lifeboat to come to the rescue of either ship or crew and it was left to the local lifesaving ‘rocket brigade’, together with their Breeches Buoy, to attempt to save the 22 seamen. For some thirteen hours the atrocious conditions frustrated their attempts to deliver the vital ropes across to the White Swan. Eventually, after several attempts, a total of four ropes did find their target and the ship’s crew were able to secure them. From that point, the ‘hand over hand’ rescue of all the seamen on to the beach took place and, whilst there were no casualties at Gorleston, the loss of the SS White Swan, the only vessel operated by the Swan Line, caused the company into liquidation. According to a newspaper of the time, there was:

“a great gale which raged with a violence, the equal of which could scarcely be recalled by some of the oldest helpers in the work of rescue from wrecks at sea along the coast.”

What remains of the former SS White Swan is still part of the Gorleston beach scene, exactly as witnessed by Peggotty; and after over a century of withstanding many subsequent storms and flood surges. For the presence, this answers any question as to the fate of the SS White Swan following the storm of 17th November 1916. It is still in the sand on which it was driven, worst for wear and broken down into much smaller pieces, some timbers still showing above low water. At one time, fishermen would tell unsuspecting anglers that the wreck’s position was a rich spot to cast a long line without getting it snagged by the skeleton.

White Swan6 (Tony Ramsay)
Some timbers. Photo: Tony Ramsay)

From other unsuspecting visitors, alarmed to see someone in apparent distress offshore, would come the occasional alert. This would trigger the usual efficient response from the emergency services who would rush to the scene – whether they suspected a false alarm or not. In 2016 for instance, the wreck’s centenary year, the local coastguard was alerted to an unknown object in the water thereabouts. In response, a seven-man team was sent to check out the report and found it was just part of the wreck; on that occasion, they logged the incident as “a false alarm with good intent.” Later, a spokesman said that whilst false alarms were quite common, “calls which turned out to relate to a 100-year-old shipwreck are rare occurrences.”

White Swan1
The buoy at high tide. Photo: EDP.

THE END

Sources:
https://www.edp24.co.uk/features/white-swan-sank-in-north-sea-at-gorleston-1-5709159
https://wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?70222
https://www.wrecksite.eu/ownerBuilderView.aspx?302
https://swscroby.wordpress.com/2016/11/16/the-white-swan/
Banner Heading Photo: By Campbell A. Mellon Wreck of the “White Swan”

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘non-profit making Site which publishes items of ‘general interest’ only. It endeavours, where required, to obtain permission to use other copyright owner’s material; however, for various reasons, identification of, and means of communicating with, owners can sometimes be difficult or impossible to establish. Nevertheless, please rest assured that the appropriate ‘credits’ are always given in our articles, and no violation of any copyright or trademark material is ever intentional.

The Disfunctional Thurtell’s!

On Sunday, October 21, 2018, Seann McAnally posted on his blog site, seann-mcanally.blogspot.com, the following:

“Goodnight Blog: I haven’t posted here in a very long time. I’d say the life of this blog (as in, my desire to attend to it) has run its course. A fresh start is in order. Eventually, I’m going to pull this down and archive the interesting bits somewhere. This gave me joy when it needed to. For that I’m glad. But I don’t need it anymore. Thank you.”

This is a pity, for without knowing where ‘the interesting bits’ will go, much may well be lost – despite good intentions. The following blog of Seann’s is a case in point and, because it has a connection with Norfolk, it has been rescued before it is too late and the body text re-published here. Full credit remains with Seann McAnally and is confirmed in this Blog.

Seann’s own blog is the first contribution below, followed by further information on the principal named ‘Thurtells’ who played such a part in the defunctional nature of this 19th century family and the problems that this ‘defunctionality’ – [extinct] brought about.

1. History’s Jackass: John Thurtell.

John Thurtell (rhymes with “turtle”) was known to his friends and family as “Jack.” That’s appropriate, as few Jackasses of History approach the level of jackassery John Thurtell achieved in his short, tragic life. About the only thing he did right was die without (much) drama. He was a confidence man and a murderer. If you’re going to be one of those, make sure you’re good at it, or, like Thurtell, you’ll end up at the end of a rope.

john thurtell 1
“Now where did I hide that gun?”. Photo: Public Domain.

Thurtell was born on 21 December 1794 into a wealthy family in the English town of Norwich. His father, Thomas Thurtell, was a prominent merchant and city councellor who also served as mayor of Norwich in 1828. Thurtell shared his father’s ambition, but lacked his skill. Rather than apply himself to his studies, he was mad for competitive sports, mainly horse racing and prize-fighting (boxing). After one too many tussles, his father decided a career in the navy would do young Thurtell good, so at age 15, with a freshly purchased commission, he joined Company 99 of the Royal Navy and set out on the HMS Adamant – which promptly sailed to The Firth of Forth in Scotland, and docked for a few years. Other than raising hell in local taverns and insulting the Scots, it appears Thurtell and his crew mates spent their time doing pretty much nothing. When the fleet got a new commander, Thurtell was disciplined and discharged by Rear Admiral William Otway for some misconduct. We don’t know what he did, but they didn’t kick you out of the Royal Navy on a whim. Record-keeping slip-ups ensured Thurtell found another berth on the HMS Bellona, despite not technically being in the Navy. The only action the HMS Bellona saw during Thurtell’s service was a convoy trip to St. Helena and back.

john thurtell (hms bellona)1
HMS Bellona

Of course, when Thurtell proudly returned home in 1814, he told his friends and family about his gallant action as he stormed the port of San Sebastian on the north coast of Spain. Naval records prove that his stories of action on the Bellona were baloney. It was docked at the Isle of Wight during the battle, and merely cruised past San Sebastian several days after hostilities had died down. He also told a story of how the Bellona captured a brig of war. It was, in fact, an unarmed merchant schooner that surrendered without a fight. Nevertheless, folks around Norwich were impressed with the tales of derring-do that surrounded the popular mayor’s son.

Thurtell’s father arranged for local merchants to extend credit to his son to set up business with his friend Giddens as manufacturers of bombazine, a fancy twilled silk dress fabric that was popular at the time. However, Thurtell soon turned back to his old obsession with prize-fighting. He made friends with a boxer from London who’d moved to Norwich to seek easier pickings. His tales encouraged Thurtell to make regular visits to London, where he frequented disreputable taverns and gambling houses devoted to betting on horse races, prize fights, and other sporting events. At this time, Thurtell impressed his contemporaries, one of whom described him as “a man of integrity.”

Thurtell’s jackassery was soon exposed, however. While Giddens plugged away managing the bombazine business, Thurtell was often absent from Norwich, and was chronically short of funds. The partners soon became delinquent in payments to their creditors, to the embarrassment of Thurtell’s father. When a London mercantile firm purchased several thousand pounds(£), a huge sum at the time, worth of silk, the gallant Thurtell offered to travel to London (alone) to collect the payment. Lo and behold!, he returned without the money, saying he’d been ambushed and robbed by footpads. He helpfully displayed some bruises and a small cut on his head as evidence. His creditors, however, were quite vocal about not believing him. His father’s influence ensured Thurtell was not charged with a crime, but his reputation in Norwich plummeted, as did that of the over-trusting and innocent Giddens. Their partnership went bankrupt in 1821 – see *Footnote below.

It was a bad year for the Thurtell family – his brother Thomas had attempted the simple life of a gentleman farmer, but found it not so simple. Owing £4000 in debt, he soon followed his big brother into bankruptcy (though he owed half of that to his father, so his credit was better than Thurtell’s). He blamed his failure on excessive taxation and sub-standard seeds.

The two brothers fled to London, their bankruptcy cases still not discharged by the court in Norwich. The two launched various schemes and enterprises, usually under Tom’s name but with Thurtell as the mastermind (if you can call it that) and active agent. Jack came up with a plan to get both he and Tom out of trouble by exploiting the Act of Relief for Insolvent Debtors, recently passed by Parliament. Thurtell believed there was a loophole. Tom was, of course, the Guinea pig. Thurtell lent his brother 17 pounds, and, as arranged, Tom defaulted on the loan. Thurtell then had Tom thrown into King’s Bench prison for debt. They banked on this expediting Tom’s original bankruptcy case and having it forgiven. This was a staggering mistake, as Thurtell missed some of the finer points of the Act. He let Tom languish in prison for 14 long months before finally withdrawing the complaint. Tom appears to have left London immediately after being released, but this didn’t stop Thurtell from continuing to do business under his brother’s name.

Thurtell took out a lease on a tavern called, appropriately, The Cock (in Tom’s name). He immediately sold off the contents of the basement (which did not belong to him). He also purchased a warehouse in both he and Tom’s name. Using proceeds from the sale of the stuff in the basement, Thurtell made a down payment to finance hundreds of pounds (£) of bombazine. He stored it in the warehouse and took out an insurance policy on it all for some £2000. He spent a few more pounds making alterations to the warehouse so that no one could see inside. Then, under cover of darkness, he transferred the silk to another location and sold it for cash, making a huge immediate profit (since he’d mostly paid with credit). Then, surprise! The warehouse mysteriously burned down – Thurtell’s remodeling job ensured the night watch didn’t see the fire until it was too late.

But the local constable was suspicious. There were no tell-tale remains of silk in the warehouse, and the remodeling obviously served no purpose other than to hide the interior. The county fire office refused to pay the insurance claim. Thurtell, in Tom’s name, sued the office and won, but the director of the fire office still refused to pay the claim, and in fact used his contacts to procure an indictment against Thurtell and the hapless Tom for conspiracy to defraud the insurance company. This would eventually come back to bite Tom, although Thurtell, as we’ll see, managed to avoid conviction by dying first.

Most of his money slipped through his fingers in the gambling dens. Thurtell fled The Cock and the mountain of unpaid bills he’d racked up running it and went into hiding under an assumed name at another tavern. During this time, his friend Joseph Hunt wrote that Thurtell “suffered from an observable disintegration of his personality.” He spent much time drinking and brooding on his ill-fortune, and writing lists of grievances against all those he’d imagined had wronged him. Chief among them was William Weare, a notorious but non-violent underworld figure who seems to have started as a waiter, then moved to professional gambling. Thurtell had, in his depression, lost £300 to Weare, and it rankled to the point of obsession. He refused to pay, and spread rumours that Weare had only won by cheating. He said because of Weare, it he’d become a laughing-stock.

john thurtell (three accomplinces)2
Taken from the book ‘Account of the Murder of the Late Mr William Weare – publishers J Nichols & Sons 1824. Photo: via Hordern House.

In October 1823, Thurtell decided on a way to avoid paying Weare the £300 he owed him. Feigning reconciliation and vowing to clear the debt, Thurtell invited Weare for a weekend in the country at the cottage of a friend, Bill Probert. However, Thurtell had enlisted Probert and another crony, Joseph Hunt, to murder Weare (how, we’ll never know, but the two were also debt-ridden ne’er-do-wells – think of them as assistant jackasses). The plan was that Thurtell would hire a gig (a gentleman’s carriage) and drive to the village of Radlett. Probert and Hunt were to follow along, catch up, and then the three would kill Weare. But the assistants got cold feet, and delayed for hours debating whether they should go through with it.

Eventually they decided to go along, but by the time they caught up with Thurtell, he’d already killed Weare – and made a real mess of it, too. Once dusk fell, Thurtell turned into a dark lane near Probert’s cottage, produced a pistol from a matched set, and shot Weare in the face. This failed to kill him. The poor bastard managed to escape from the carriage, but did not get far stumbling into the darkness. Thurtell chased him and caught Weare when he tripped over a root. Thurtell drew a knife and slit Weare’s throat from ear to ear, then, for some reason, bashed Weare in the head repeatedly with his pistol, until Weare’s brains were dashed all over the ground. Thurtell hid the pistol and the knife in a nearby hedge. Then, when Probert and Hunt arrived, they helped him throw the body into a pond on Probert’s property – after searching it and looting it, of course. The trio then went to Probert’s cottage, where Thurtell presented Mrs. Probert with a gold chain he’d taken off Weare’s corpse. They all stayed up late into the night singing over rounds of grog.

The next day, Thurtell went to retrieve the murder weapons – but he couldn’t find them. Nervous, the men waited for dark, fished Weare’s body out of the pond, and dumped it in another pond by the road to the village of Elstree. Meanwhile, a road maintenance crew found the pistol and knife, and saw the brains and blood, and notified authorities. It wasn’t long before they showed up looking for Thurtell – whether they were skilled investigators or not is moot. Thurtell, jackass that he was, made it easy for them. All of Weare’s friends knew he’d planned to spend the weekend with Thurtell. When he didn’t show up at his regular haunts the following Monday, they reported it. The horse Thurtell had hired to pull the gig had rare and distinctive coloration – all gray, with a white face. Several witnesses on the road remembered seeing it, and Thurtell and Weare, riding along on the day of the murder. When the authorities questioned Thurtell, they found the other pistol from the matched set, which was, of course, identical to one of the murder weapons.

At this, Probert and Hunt immediately turned King’s Evidence against Thurtell and told everything. All charges were dropped against Probert, but Hunt, who initially lied to investigators about helping to hide the body, was banished to Australia (where, settling in Botany Bay, he married, had two children, and became a pillar of the community). Thurtell proclaimed his innocence throughout his arrest, confinement, and trial. He attempted to delay the trial by calling witnesses who he knew to be absent from London. This tactic didn’t work. He was convicted of Weare’s murder and hanged on 9 January 1824. Meanwhile, Hunt sold his story to the newspapers, and the lurid details of the crime ensured a major media circus at the execution. Oddly, Thurtell seems to have died well, without any blubbering or begging. On the scaffold, he admitted to the murder, said justice had been done, and then, in a classic jackass move, instead of asking for forgiveness, announced in a loud, steady voice: “I forgive the world!” His body was dissected and studied (common with criminals at the time) and today his skeleton is still on display at the Anatomical Museum of Edinburgh University.

Later that year, his brother Tom was convicted in the warehouse insurance fraud scheme, even though his only crime was to let Thurtell write his name on the paperwork. He, too, was hanged.

Thurtell became something of a celebrity after his death as the subject of penny dreadfuls and cautionary tales about the dangers of young gentlemen coming to London and getting involved in the vice of underworld gambling. But it seems clear that Thurtell’s jackassery began long before his gambling days, and we must conclude that he is, indeed, one of the true Jackasses of History.

  • This Footnote to Seann’s story (above) comes from Meeres, F., ‘A History of Norwich, Phillimore, 1998: “On the 22nd January 1821, John Thurtell advertised that he had been in Chapel Field, Norwich at 9pm when three men had knocked him down and robbed him of £1,508. The cash was in his pocket-book “In notes, 13 of which were of the Bank of England, value £100 each and the name “John Thurtell” is endorsed on them”. A reward of £100 was offered to whoever might give information “which may lead to the apprehension and conviction of the persons concerned in this robbery”. It sounded an incredible sum of money to be carrying and before long it was discovered to be a scam. Thurtell’s bombazine firm had been declared bankrupt and he was hoping to enjoy a public subscription.”

2. Others Of The Thurtell Family.

The following is based on the reseach done by Susan T. Miller, plus information received by her from the Norwich Public Library on the records of the Thurtell family. According to her research, Thomas Thurtell (father and later Mayor of Norwich) was born to John and Anne Thurtell (below) in 1765, baptised on July 21, 1765, at St. Julians Church, Norwich, and died April 8, 1846, aged 81. He married, in Blundeston, Suffolk, on September 25, 1787 to Susannah Browne, who was born in 1764 and died in 1848.

Purely as an aside – Susannah’s sister, Anne Browne, married Thomas’ brother, John Thurtell and Anne’s brother, Robert Browne, married Thomas’s sister, Sarah Thurtell, in a triple wedding ceremony at the Church of St. Mary in Blundeston, Suffolk in 1787.

Thomas Thurtell (our notorious killer’s father), Susannah his wife, and a daughter are buried in the new church at Lakenham with two of their other children buried in the churchyard of Lakenham Old Church. Thomas’s residence was Harford Hall farm, Ipswich Road by Harford Bridge in Lakenham Parish. We are told that he farmed this property under Southwell, landlord, and died there. However, property records for the farm apparently show that Thomas, described as ‘Esquire’, only occupied it as leassee between 1811 and 1819, so perhaps the rest of the time there was some other arrangement?

According to the family’s researchers, the convicted killer John Thurtell’s father, Thomas Thurtell, was an extremely tempetuous, violent, and unforgiving character. His treatment of his family was often tyrannical, and it was felt that much of the son’s criminal behaviour was his responsibility. However, he refused to pay the lawyer’s expenses in connection with John’s trial for murder; he also deprived another son of his promised marriage settlement and legacy. Thomas Thurtell’s mayoralty was said to be ‘extremely tempestuous and his critics vocal’. Nevertheless, he was a “highly respected and opulent merchant of Norwich” and three times Mayor of Norwich. He was also a prominent member of the Whig party in Norwich and became a member of the Common Council in 1812, Alderman in 1815, Sheriff in 1815, and Mayor in 1828 (elected by the Court of Aldermen after two inconclusive popular votes). He was again Mayor in 1829 when the Old Fye Bridge was built – as indicated on a brass tablet which was uncovered in 1932 when the bridge was widened.

It must be noteworthy that Thomas Thurtell was chosen as Mayor even after the trial and execution of his son John Thurtell on 9 January 1824, whom his father disowned. Thomas senior had done his best to set his two sons, Thomas and John, up in business in 1814 and, with his help, the two boys purchased and manufactured silks and bombasin for him. Later they became involved in something underhanded that Thomas senior knew nothing about. Nevertheless, he appears to have survived this and other scandals, related to his sons, with an undiminished reputation; and the dreadful legal troubles of his sons must have caused much grief. However, in the obituary on his death it is stated that he was universally esteemed as an honest and upright man.

THE END

Sources:
http://seann-mcanally.blogspot.com/2015/03/jackasses-of-history-john-thurtell.html
http://www.thurtellfamily.net/geotf/gp/nti00035.html
http://www.thurtellfamily.net/geofvm/uk/johnandannebrownethurtell.html
https://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/thurtell.html
http://www.murderpedia.org/male.T/t/thurtell-john.htm
Photos:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radlett_murder
https://www.hordern.com/pages/books/3812957/transportation-george-henry-jones/account-of-the-murder-of-the-late-mr-william-weare-of-lyons-inn-and-portraits-of-the-prisoners-john
Feature Heading (Credit.Robert-Cruikshank) : https://www.onlinecasinoground.nl/gokhuizen-rond-1800-in-londen-en-een-moord/

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